The Meaning of the City

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The Meaning of the City is a theological essay by Jacques Ellul which recounts the story of the city in the Bible and seeks to explain the city's biblical significance.

Ellul wrote the book in 1951; it was published in English translation in 1970, and then in French in 1975 as Sans feu ni lieu : Signification biblique de la Grande Ville.


Where is the city's foundation? All mythologies speak of an original garden, returning to which is man's only desire. The city is the world of man: his creation (made in his image) and his pride because it reflects his culture and his civilization. It is also a place of absurdity, of chaos, and of man's power over Nature and man, a place of slavery par excellence. Ellul recounts, through the course of the Bible, the city's origins. God places man in a garden because this is his natural place, the place to which he is best adapted. But man wished to separate from God and determine his own destiny. All mythologies herald man's return to nature, a return to the original state. Inversely, the Bible anticipates a perfect city, the New Jerusalem. "This shows that, out of love, God revises his own plans, taking into account the history of men, including their maddest revolts."[1] Thus, from Genesis to Revelation, Ellul brings to life the rhythm of the city and unmasks the illusions thence attached, navigating within the Christian dialectic between the fall of man and redemption in order to give meaning to the present situation of people, who depend on the big city for everything they do.


Ellul gives an exegesis of the city in the Bible. This is not a formalist or structuralist exegesis, but a traditional exegesis, which is to say it seeks to present the text as it appears today and in its entirety. This means that the author, here, seeks within the Bible all passages which relate to the city, as the basis for a biblical definition of this place. If the author "hears" the more sophisticated meanings given by his contemporaries, he nevertheless considers that one "cannot honestly interpret a text outside its content and the meaning which it gives itself". He therefore refuses to divide the text into independent fragments, instead taking them in their entirety; he considers the text to be essentially dialectical, implying that its meaning arises within an ensemble of contradictory statements. So doing, Ellul does not seek to explain why the Bible says what it says on the subject of cities, but to show what it says.

Critique of the city[edit]

It is within the framework of his critique of technique (see The Technological Society) that Ellul approaches the city. In effect, according to him, the city is the place where technique becomes system, preventing man from living in freedom. And according to Ellul, this freedom arises in work within proximity to God, and later in the perfect example of Jesus Christ. Thus, "if one follows Ellul, humanity's freedom of choice seems singularly limited: return to the path of the Christian God or accept the dissolution of humanity. Strictly speaking this conception of liberty is a negation of autonomy, is a heteronomy. Facing this dilemma to which Ellul condemns us, how can we raise a challenge, how can we find a truly autonomous liberty, which is to say find its true characteristics and true limits?".[2] This remark, published in the Revue du MAUSS, critiques Ellul's theistic thrust, but also shows the extent to which man wants to live without God, considering that true liberty cannot exist in relation to a creator.

The city is precisely the place created by man. It is the affirmation of man taking his life into his own hands, independently of God; it is the expression of man's rebellion against God. God has placed man at the garden, a place adapted to him. But man refuses the life for which God has destined him, which is unsettled, and men have gathered and organized themselves in order to depend no longer on nature. This political project (see Ellul 1965, L'Illusion politique), the management of the metropolis, underlies the city: security, survival, commerce, collective living... But this city, created to strengthen human solidarity and protect man against natural aggressions, becomes the place to isolation and insecurity. "Divine or celestial, the city reflects with the space of European culture a religious ideal of 'collective life', on which converge all the major issues of future society. The eater of men and the producer of social regulations, of power conflicts and culture shocks."[3] The history of cities is the history of religions cross and interlocking, and of the Christian experience of this relationship, principally in relation to the urban conquest through which religion expanded itself. Since the 1960s, thinkers have raised the question of the "Secular City",[4] · [5] · [6] and the city has become a "theological issue".[7] In any case, the urban project, which diverts man from God, will at the last be judged severely.

The city is also the location of spiritual conflict. It therefore bears a profound meaning, a spiritual mark, which is the sign of malediction, and the founder of the city is cursed among all. "It is through slavery that Israel is linked to the city." All the cities, within the Bible, are cursed, and "never a word of hope, never a word of pardon for the city, for it is a terrible manifestation of the brilliant morning star, which has debased humanity." This malediction explains all the difficulties, all the problems encountered in cities, and however much one may seek solutions (security, urbanism, isolation), man will never make the city anything but that which it is. Here, one can detect the influence of Ellul's good friend Bernard Charbonneau. "Ellul was constantly recognizing his debt to Charbonneau", said pastor and theologian Jean-Sébastien Ingrand, director of the Strausbourg Protestant Media Library. Together they published "Outline of a personalist manifesto", in which they denounced, among other things, the city as contrary to liberty.[8] "The man of the city is rich in money but poor in space and time", they wrote. "The city is a place of inhumanity, especially the banlieue, a banal and homogeneous space, the exact opposite of the country. The city is a place of artifice, where nature is vanquished. But note: one must not romanticize nature, which is perfectly capable of defending itself alone. It is man who is fragile, and above all his liberty. Bernard Charbonneau with Le jardin de Babylone (1969) and Jacques Ellul with Jacques Ellul, Sans feu, ni lieu (1975), rediscovered this point.[9]

The city has grown to the size foretold by Ellul and Charbonneau, who were witnessing the urbanization of the world, the universalization of technique, and the standardization of all civilizations.[10] Indeed, in 2008, the world's urban population surpassed its rural population.[11] Where Charbonneau applied the symbol of Babylon, Ellul focuses on Ninevah. The big city is a mass which cannot survive without sacrificing liberty. "This, then, is what separates the two men: against the catastrophism of Charbonneau, Ellul presents a Christian hope, which leads from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem foretold in Revelations.".[9]


I. The Builders
  1. Caon
  2. Nimrod
  3. Israel
  4. Let Us Build
II. Thunder Over the City
  1. The Curse
  2. Soddom and Ninevah
  3. But In These Cities
III. Long We Wait for the Coming of the Dawn
  1. Temporal Election
  2. Jerusalem
IV. Jesus Christ
  1. The Fulfillment
  2. Neither Hearth Nor Home
  3. The Multitude
  4. Jesus and Jerusalem
V. True Horizons
  1. The History of the City
  2. From Cain to Jerusalem
  3. From Eden to Jerusalem
VI. Yahweh-Shammah
  1. The New City
  2. Symbolism

Bibliography of related works[edit]


  1. ^ Frédéric Rognon, Jacques Ellul : Une pensée en dialogue, éd. Labor et Fides, 2007, p.86 [1]. "Cela signifie que, par amour, Dieu révise ses propres desseins, pour tenir compte de l'histoire des hommes, y compris de leurs plus folles révoltes."
  2. ^ Jean-Pierre Jézéquel, Jacques Ellul ou l’impasse de la technique, Revue du Mauss, 2010. "si l’on suit Ellul, la liberté de choix de l’humanité semble singulièrement restreinte : retrouver le chemin du Dieu chrétien ou se résigner à la disparition de l’humanité. Stricto sensu cette conception de la liberté est une négation de l’autonomie, c’est une hétéronomie. Face au dilemme auquel nous condamne Ellul, comment relever le défi, comment retrouver une liberté véritablement autonome, c’est-à-dire trouvant en elle-même ses propres déterminations et ses propres limites ?"
  3. ^ Bruno Dumons et Bernard Hours, Ville et religion en Europe du XVIe au XXe siècle - La cité réenchantée, la pierre et l'écrit, 2010, p.10). "Divine ou céleste, la cité renvoie dans l’espace culturel européen à l’image d’un idéal religieux du « vivre ensemble » où convergent tous les enjeux majeurs de la société future. Mangeuse d’hommes et productrice de nouvelles économies, la ville s’apparente à un espace où s’opèrent toutes sortes de mobilités démographiques, de régulations sociales, de conflits de pouvoir et de chocs culturels"
  4. ^ Harvey Cox, La Cité séculière. Essai théologique sur la sécularisation et l’urbanisation, Paris, Casterman, 1968
  5. ^ Joseph Comblin, Théologie de la ville, Paris, Éditions Universitaires, 1968
  6. ^ Jacques Ellul, Sans feu, ni lieu, Paris, Gallimard, 1975
  7. ^ Bruno Dumons et Bernard Hours, Ville et religion en Europe du XVIe au XXe siècle - La cité réenchantée, la pierre et l'écrit, 2010, p.11)
  8. ^ Jacques Ellul et Bernard Charbonneau, Directives pour un manifeste personnaliste, 1935, texte dactylographié édité par les groupes d'Esprit de la région du Sud-ouest; publié en 2003 par les Cahiers Jacques-Ellul n°1, "Les années personnalistes", p. 68
  9. ^ a b Roger Cans, compte-rendu d’un colloque sur Bernard Charbonneau, précurseur de l’écologie, organisé du 2 au 4 mai 2011 à l’IRSAM (université de Pau). "L’homme des villes est riche d’argent, mais pauvre d’espace et de temps », écrivent-ils. « La ville est un lieu d’inhumanité, la banlieue surtout, espace banalisé et uniforme, l’exact opposé de la campagne. La ville est un lieu d’artifice, où la nature est vaincue. Mais attention : il ne faut pas idéologiser la nature, qui se défend très bien toute seule. C’est l’homme qui est fragile, et surtout sa liberté. Bernard Charbonneau avec Le jardin de Babylone (1969) et Jacques Ellul avec Jacques Ellul, Sans feu, ni lieu (1975), se retrouvent sur ce point"
  10. ^ Jean-Luc Porquet, « Nous tous pareils » in Jacques Ellul - L'homme qui avait (presque) tout prévu, Le Cherche-Midi, 2003, p. 151-158
  11. ^ "Population mondiale — Astronoo".

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